An American Lament

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Vincent Castiglia – “Lament”

When life began shuttering for all of us back in March, I found myself once again on the run and beginning to feel as if I couldn’t breathe.  If you read back to the blogs I posted back in March, the sense of darkness was surfacing, tossing and turning at night, overwhelmed by once again the feeling of drowning.  It was the sense of loss, feeling homeless, a looming pandemic, and admittedly, the humility it takes to move home, even if temporarily, after more than twenty years away.  I could literally feel it on my chest, like I couldn’t breathe.

If you’re a regular reader, you know it’s nothing new for me, the sense of having my breath taken away.  One of the most pivotal moments in my life was nearly drowning while whitewater rafting on the Ohiopyle River in Western Pennsylvania.  It was not only the weight of a raft atop me, but the weight of the handful of men in the raft, and even the weight of a life flashing before my eyes, my life as it seemed to be coming to an abrupt end in a matter of seconds although feeling like minutes.  I couldn’t breathe.

If we can ever admit, or take the time to become aware, most of us at one time or another know that feeling of drowning or being unable to breathe.  We’ve witnessed the story of George Floyd this past week, a man pinned to the ground for what we now know to be nearly 9 minutes with a knee to his throat.  I’ll never admit to understanding I know what it feels like, but I do know the feeling of oppression and the weight of the world and all powers plopped down on top of me, unable to move, breathe, or even live life fully.  It’s the point which often goes unspoken, but believe it has more to do with the fact most don’t know their drowning because it’s often in their own grief.

It takes a great deal of humility to admit something is wrong and needing help, especially for men.  It’s not a surprise to anyone, men are more prone to suppress and repress how they feel and takes a lot of pushing before it begins to spill over.  We’re much better at taking it out on others than we are on allowing the pain to be transformed within us.  If we compound years of anger, hurt, and resentment, with now nearly three months of quarantine and lock-downs, it shouldn’t shock us when it begins to reach a boil and no one willing to turn back the heat.  It becomes, sadly, a political game with each of us as pawns, pushed to stand against so-called beliefs rather than with a hurting people.

We have before us many failing institutions.  It doesn’t mean their surmise; however, it does mean change is necessary, now more than ever.  We find ourselves surrounded by institutions which have become self-serving, which naturally take an oppressive approach because they become about power, and inevitably, an abuse of power.  We certainly see it in our political system, crumbling infrastructures, waffling cities, irrelevant religious institutions driven more by politics, money, and keeping the natives intact.  Is it any wonder we find ourselves now at a boiling point with the fear of only getting worse as this political season heats up?

I, of course, can only speak of my own experience.  There is even a part of me lamenting the rush of churches reopening.  As someone who’s been on the inside, there is great value and still have a resounding faith, but like most institutions, we refuse to look at the whole.  Now more than ever, churches need to move beyond the walls and out into the streets.  The thought of closing church into the confines of a wall gives the sense of suffocation, unable to breathe.  Over time we gradually are lulled into believing the world is bad, dark, evil, or any word you choose to describe.  However, it’s no different than an individual closing in on him or her-self. 

Over time, we become isolated, self-consumed, and breakdown communication.  It doesn’t mean we can’t function in the world; we still work, gather around people, and do what we need to do, but all in anticipation of locking ourselves back up again, feeling like we can once again breathe as we “leave” the world.  Before we quickly return to get our “fix” of comfort, we need to take a look at the world and what’s happening.  Again, I must say, I’m not against any of it; however, more needs to be expected of such an institution claiming transformation at its heart.  It’s also not simply my own faith background; it’s religion in America which fears the world and change and yet paradoxically choosing death over life by not changing systemically.

There is much to lament these days.  There are the countless people killed, hundreds of thousands dying of disease and viruses, at times looking like we don’t care, inequalities we prefer to make judgment of than deal with, failing institutions, increasing debt, anxiety through the roof, thousands upon thousands on prescription drugs for depression and other mental health issues, people yelling at one another unable to listen, pain boiling over, lack of care or concern for the other, selfishness, survival over living, transactional mindsets, empty words and speeches, generational trauma, and the list goes on an on.  Who are the people benefiting from this “normal”?  Is it “normal”?  Why is there a rush to return to “normal”?  Do you see why we shouldn’t rush to once again close off from the world?  It’s understandable why we make it “normal”; who wants to confront the pain of others when we can’t deal with our own!

When we break it down, we’ve lost our ability to dialogue as humans.  We’ve disconnected from our heart and try to understand through an ego which will always try to defend and protect.  Our greatest lament is the loss of our humanity in our institutions and beyond.  People are suffering on levels requiring self-aware leaders, free of the confines of institutional boundaries of cufflinks, dress and three-piece suits, a willingness, as Pope Francis says, “to smell like the sheep”.  The more we allow ourselves to be immersed in the pain and suffering of the world, we find ourselves unable to breathe by our own hypocrisy as a fellow human on the journey.  I know; I’ve been there.  Even writing about it brings up the feeling within me, reminding me of a life once lived not my own.  We lament the institutional freedom for true freedom.

As Americans we must lament.  We must grieve in these days.  We must learn to let go of our expectations, dreams unlived, our resentments and anger.  We must go out among the ones we deemed “profane” and listen to their story as well.  It’s not only our story which we find crumbling; it’s everyone’s story.  We need to write a new story for future generations, weaving together the great parts of our tradition with their own vision for tomorrow.  It’s not going to be the same.  It can’t be the same.  It mustn’t be the same.  We need to lament, most of all, a return to “normal”.  If one does not benefit from a return, then none of us do.  We must understand the one who’s been pushed from the top, being held underwater.  They have a perspective and a voice which must be heard, whether we agree or not.  For lamenting is not about agreeing or disagreeing.  It’s about grieving a heart which has hurt, a heart which will continue to scream out from underneath the raft until it’s given its voice to speak.  As Americans, it’s time to lament…

Leaning Into Life

Although not discussed in great detail, I was watching an interview this week from a representative from WebMD about trends on searches during this time of pandemic. It was interesting to note the shift taking place in what people feel they need during this time, first on how long the virus survives on surfaces, when it first began, to now loneliness and depression. It seems like a radical shift as a majority of us quickly approach the second month of quarantine and social distancing and what it’s doing to us psychologically and spiritually. It may be true this pandemic is making us somewhat “stir-crazy”, understandable knowing what it’s been like together and individually. However, what we fail to recognize is the pandemic, in many ways, is simply allowing what has been for some time to rise to the surface and making sure we have nowhere to run, giving us the opportunity to no longer run from our own shadow, scaring us half to death. It begins to rear itself in our dreams and other means demanding our attention.

I’ve been depressed and experienced a deep moral loneliness, as so many readers’ have experienced in their lives or may be for the first time during this pandemic. I have had to take medication along the way in order to assist me in the process, giving the necessary bump to deal with the shadow of my own life in which I was running. If we stop simply at meds, though, we never actually deal with the problem of loneliness and moments like we find ourselves begin to feel excruciating. It truly is an invisible enemy easily masked until we are forced to stop or tragedy strikes, no longer making logical sense of the lives we’ve learned to box up and wrap neatly. It leads, unfortunately, to living a double-life which deepens the loneliness. Now, though, we find ourselves no longer able to run.

I’m not saying there’s an easy answer to any of it. However, most of us have had the experience of living double-lives, growing the gulf within us leading to this sense of darkness. Our identities have a tendency to be wrapped up in what we do, in our work, so when we find ourselves at home, week after week, our ability to run from the pain associated with this loneliness seems nearly impossible. It’s no wonder places selling alcohol become “essential” places because it so often is used as a numbing drug in order to take away the pain, when in reality, only deepens the pain to the point where it feels like there’s an abyss within our soul and we find ourselves freefalling into the darkness. There is a reason many need to go back to work. Certainly, there is the financial element for millions of people right now, but on a human side, so many do not know who they are without working, and working to the point of addiction. If we’re not producing then there must be something wrong with us.

I can recall days in my own life, when, upon finishing working, I dreaded going home. I dreaded the pain which would begin to surface within me because I was feeding an identity not my own. I can recall the level of pain I experienced at times in my life because of the gulf existing between work and home. Home became a place to fear and dread because I couldn’t outrun the pain. All I could ever do was numb it with whatever was available, often food for myself. I feel for the people who find themselves in this position today, after nearly decades of their lives working and being able to leave home to escape themselves. As ridiculous as it seems, I can even feel for people protesting. In the various images I have seen, you can literally see the pain in their faces as they arm themselves with guns and such, giving them a sense of power, in which has felt lost. They’ve lost their outlet and can no longer avoid themselves. Unfortunately, though, there’s always someone ready to capitalize on the pain of others. I remember needing to deal with the regrets in my life, the resentments I was holding onto, all aimed at myself, blaming myself, living out of my own victimhood. It was a feeling as if the world was consistently working against me and I allowed it. Anything to avoid the inevitable flip of the mirror of me staring back at myself, unable to run from my own hurt and pain. I will say, in my experience, men are much more susceptible to this type because they are driven by work.

We have a tendency to limit the pain of loneliness to elements of this pandemic, such as social distancing and the absence of physical touch. This may be true to a point and we can allow ourselves to feel the pain of separation in this way. However, I don’t believe it’s the deep loneliness and darkness some are experiencing these days. There is certainly a level of grief connected to the pandemic. I too am living in the same way, at the house I grew up in, but I by no means feel lonely. I don’t feel the sense of separation from myself. If, though, our identity isn’t wrapped up in our work and what we produce, it can also be tied to what others tell us we are, dependent upon what others think and believe about us. This too leads to a separation from ourselves. As shallow as our culture can be, generally speaking, we’ve lost the sense of transformation and even how to go about doing it and so we live in a perpetual state of anxiousness because of this gulf within ourselves.

There is nothing easy about loneliness, which can lead to depression for many. There is also no quick fix in dealing with it. The rush to normalcy calls to mind just how much we loathe the necessity to allow things to die, especially our thinking and mindset. The rush to normalcy is fed by the fear and anxiety we face in having no where to run from ourselves. Although I don’t know statistics, it would be interesting to see numbers on domestic abuse, alcoholism, increased addiction to pain meds, and all the other numbing elements occurring during this time. It comes down to this very basic principle of knowing ourselves and beginning to close the gap between the persona we present at work, in relationships, etc. and the person who lays his or her head on the pillow at night, the one time when we are truly alone. Our economy, our politics, religion, job, all want to define us in one way or another and slowly we take on their identity as consumer, party affiliate, winner, loser, sinner, hard-worker, and we begin to believe this is finally the identity which defines me.

However, none of them do. None of them. As all of these identities have slowly been stripped of us the past month, we are left with our own poverty, our own sense of abyss within ourselves which doesn’t need to be feared but rather which we surrender to the voice calling us to enter into our own darkness, our loneliness, not to be consumed by it, but to feel our way through the darkened corners of our hearts and souls and to claim it. We need not fear the terror of the night! I have written it in all these posts these weeks, we are all being given a golden opportunity! In an addictive and co-dependent culture within so many of our institutions and organizations, we have been set free from what has bound us most. It’s no wonder they rush to get us back! We help in feeding these masters, these ghouls, decorating us with lavish identities, hiding our poverty and making us feel rich!

My friends, and all who read this day, what is your relationship with the ghouls which have identified you? With your religion, your work, newsfeeds, your political affiliation, your whatever? Most especially, though, what is your relationship like with yourself? Welcome reality as it is and not the way any of them tell you. Recognize what you actually have control over, the choices and decisions you make for yourself and not much else. Become aware of how you feel the world has worked against you and begin to shift the mindset where it works for you. Don’t sit around and simply wait for this to pass, even though it will. Allow yourself to be empowered to change what you can in your life and begin to close the gap causing such deep loneliness. This ultimately leads to the freedom we truly desire in our lives, a freedom which doesn’t come through some official document nor from carrying a weapon.

Think about people like Saint Paul, Martin Luther King, Jr, Anne Frank, and so many others who were imprisoned in their own right and still spoke from a place of freedom. They had the mindset of a world working for them and no need to blame. Trust me, there’s still a loneliness which accompanies such darkness when you feel you stand alone and being crucified. However, they were true to themselves, dealt with their darkness, and learned to be empowered through and with it rather than running away. The wisdom figures of ancient past all point to the same deeply held truth, what appears to be our greatest fear and obstacle, the thorn in our side, is often our greatest gift. Don’t run from the loneliness of these days. Rather, lean into it and allow it to teach by welcoming it in, allow it to be healed, and offer it back to a hurting and often lonely world.

Unknown Truth

It’s not wrong to go without, even if it means confronting some of our deepest demons of safety and security or even the “warm fuzzies” we often come to rely upon in our lives. It has become too easy for any of us to go and get what we need or want when we want or need it. I wouldn’t think twice about running to the store, the computer, Amazon, a church or place of worship, whatever it may be to satisfy often the unease I desperately try to avoid within myself, as if I’m somehow lacking. If there’s anything about this pandemic experience we can learn, it’s just how convenience has ruled our lives. It’s not until we’re forced to stop, shops close, churches lock doors, sports shut-down, where we begin to see just how easy our lives have been and how uncomfortable we are with unease. We begin to “see” how much we’ve been able to avoid the acute pain within ourselves by running and avoiding the darkness, the hell, which has loomed. Quite frankly, more often than not we don’t stop until we’re forced to and are left with nowhere to run, hit square on by our own darkness.

There are more examples than I can write of here how we have projected this darkness onto society and the world rather than confronting our own demons. We simply want life to return to “normal”, one for the sake of routine and ease, but also because of our uncomfortableness with the unspoken and the “virus” which has hovered below the surface of our own lives and society at large. This may very well be the first time for many having to confront the “stuff” lingering below the surface, unable to know where to turn or who is going to understand since it is so new and the natural inclination is to “stuff” it. I don’t know about anyone else, but there are moments, in particular around the sleeping hours, where I’ll awaken in the darkness of night feeling short of breath. It seems impossible to distance ourselves from stories of respiratory failure wondering when it’s going to be my turn. As someone who’s dealt with respiratory issues in the past, including pneumonia, it’s easy to say I’m not going to worry but another to actually believe. There are so many unknown factors at play since it really is, novel. It isn’t, though, a respiratory condition, but rather a deeper reality trying to emerge from the drowning waters of the subconscious.

It may be one of the greatest factors at play in all of this. Living with the sense of ease and convenience, we’ve become accustomed to certain degrees of certainty and now trying to navigate without. As litigious as we are, or were, as a society, we tend to thrive on certainty. The more knowledge, facts, knows we have, the more comfortable we are as people. As it is with avoiding pain, we avoid the uncertain and the unknown out of fear. Yet, much of this experience has been about the unknown. As a matter of fact, it seems as if the more we know by watching news and reading about the pandemic, the greater the degree of fear and anxiety becomes attached to us. If we can extrapolate anything from the experience, it should be the degree of trust we place on what we believe to be certain, what makes us feel safe and secure. We want answers! The level of blame going on, and not simply on the political level, points to how much trust we place in something which is merely an illusion in the first place and how much we lack in faith and the deeper sense of trust which defines it.

We tend to associate experiences of the “dark night” as moments of depression, and it can be, or bad days and weeks, also can true. There would certainly be many stories of such an experience going on in people’s lives at this moment. However, there is a deeper sense of the dark night unfolding within and beyond us at the moment and an invitation to a new way of living rooted in faith and trust. It doesn’t necessarily come in the form of depression or despair or the unsettlement of our lives. Rather, the invitation lies within the experience of the unknown and this sense of aloneness and lack of meaning we find ourselves in during these days and weeks. Even our faith traditions have fallen prey to the illusions of safety and security over the years and the certainty the illusions provide. “If I do all the right things and follow all the rules, I’ll ‘go to’ heaven.” Unfortunately, this isn’t faith. However, when it begins to fall apart, and I question, and life doesn’t seem so ‘black and white’, there is the beginning of what can be a dark night, something truly to be grateful for! Otherwise “faith” is simply a means of control, who’s in and who’s out, especially when the world around us feels out of control. When it begins to feel as if we’re drowning in our own pain and grief, we will find anything to give us this sense of certainty, as if something in our lives is controllable.

Yet, now we even find ourselves in the absence of this version of faith. Doors of churches, mosques, synagogues, places of worship have been closed and locked. It alone can be seen as a dark night, but I would add at this moment of history, a necessary one for the future relevance of religion on our lives and society. The codependent relationship of religion and politics has done nothing to further the rich traditions of the contemplative and meditative natures a dark night like we are experiencing demands. The relationship has clung to safety and security and the demand for certainty which only something like a pandemic can begin to unfurl. We can almost expect the thirst for power to exist in politics; it always has. However, more is to be demanded of our faith traditions than mere fabrications of certainty when the only truth we can cling to in moments of unknown is Trust and learning to accept it in the unknown, in the darkness.

I could understand wanting churches to be packed on Easter Sunday, even if it was a highly unlikely goal. However, in a time of pandemic and utter darkness for so many, maybe the best gift we can give is to delay Easter for a later day. I mean, there really is no reason why it can’t be delayed. If there is a greater need for us as a society, it’s to know what suffering is and learning to trust within these moments. Instead we’ll fabricate an Easter in the absence of people, who not unlike the disciples, found themselves hunkered down, isolated, questioning, fearful, within the upper room, trying to make sense and meaning out of the events of suffering and death. Even after resurrection Easter could not be fabricated for the followers. They had to come to the place in time and it often didn’t happen until they allowed themselves to get out of the way, enter deeply into the sense of “going without”, and learn to trust in their own very darkness, unseen by the naked eye throughout the unfolding story and not made visible until life and death intersected.

We’ve settled for so little and often because of our inability to go without, sacrifice, and to feel the “pinch” so many other previous generations learned to live. We’ve settled more often than not for fabricated Easter’s, saying we no longer need to live with the suffering and darkness. However, this is not faith and trust. It’s living with the illusion of truth and certainty all while closing a blind eye to the suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world. We’ve settled for a fabricated Easter by throwing money at problems, always having heady and pious answers, clear definitions, blaming others for problems, weaponizing and polticizing scripture, and spiritualizing real problems. It’s all a fabrication of our collective ego in order to protect what we believe to be most important, but it’s not faith nor trusting. It’s believing a truth we can live with one and without the other. Faith, however, is learning to live with both and feeling the tension between life and death, light and darkness, suffering and joy.

What’s dying is the illusory ego. How do we know? We know because of the lack of certainty, no quick answers or fixes, no foreseeable return to “normal” (nor should we), confusion, darkness, death. It’s all there fixed on our screens not unlike the scenes of 9/11. We were given an invitation then and we let it pass us by, trying to consume our ways out of it. We are now given another invitation to understand our complexity as humans, the truth of life and death are all of us, when we have nothing to consume as doors remain locked, where all we can do is sit in the darkness of the moment and feel. It’s a painful feel, as if I can’t breathe, a sense of isolation, lacking purpose and meaning, trapped in the upper room, fearful of an unseen virus and maybe the unknown of my own life. We are given a dark night at a time when we need it the most. We are given time to “go without” so many ways of life we have become accustomed. I’m not saying it’s easy. As a matter of fact, it’s growing old quickly. However, there’s more to learn. Even as I write I can feel it within myself.

Are we going to continue to settle for mere fabrications of safety and security? Are we going to use this time to grow exponentially as humans, learning to see each other as ourselves, understanding the suffering of others? Are we going to continue to settle for a faith rooted in certainty rather than trust and truth? Are we, as a society, going to finally deal with a broken heart of a life which hasn’t been as expected and finally allowing ourselves to be led by a healed heart rather than an injured ego? Are we going to continue to allow ourselves to be victims and blame “the world” for all of our problems rather than take responsibility for our lives? These are questions we ask in the darkest of nights we are living in this pandemic.

It’s not a moment to sulk, even if I feel it at times, but rather to find glimmers of light within the confusion, chaos, darkness, fear, uncertainty for we are both and not one or the other. It’s a moment to accept our own mortality and commit to living life differently as we go forward, day by day and choice by choice, to live from a deeper level, a higher consciousness, filled with faith and trust. It’s a moment to learn to live without, without certainty, safety, security, knowns, facts, ins and outs, convenience, ease, and to leap into the unknown. The great promise and truth I can give is it’s the best thing you can do for yourself, we can all do for ourselves. It’s uncomfortable, there’s grieving, it’s dark, and all the rest, but it’s the hero’s journey, a faithful journey, and truthful journey, one leading to meaning and purpose and a faith rooted not in certainty but in the darkest night of the soul, wandering lost, where life no longer makes sense, only desiring and wanting nothing more than to feel the “presence of the Soul” once again.

Family Dis-Unity

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“Does our party choose us?” This was a question posed by Ezra Klein on a recent On Being Podcast with Krista Tippett entitled, “How We Walked Into This and How We Can Walk Out”. It’s a conversation based on his new book, Why We’re Polarized. I highly recommend listening to the extended version of the interview for greater depth and clarity of the points he’s trying to make in the book. Ezra’s primary point is in regards to the volatility of the political parties as they stand, and in some ways, their undoing all at the same time. However, based on so many environmental factors, family, geographic location, urban or rural, socioeconomic background, and any other, it can be seen to be birth that chooses our political affiliation. I dare say, not much different than most religious backgrounds, we find ourselves “born” into a particular sect of religion, and, as it often goes, ours holds the undeniable truth, both religion and political party.

The current addiction to contempt and hysteria, as he points out, is due to the fact all this hurt being carried is currently stacked in an entire political party (all) and round-the-clock media coverage of national politics stoking flames, despite feeling powerless. He rightly makes the point, our greater focus of politics is best served local, despite being sucked into a national amoral, reality television program unfolding now for decades. Our entrenchment continues to solidify a Party ego, difficult to infiltrate and resulting in heartless politics. The political machine has found ways to manipulate “family” members into believing we’re needed for the good of the country as we know better than anyone. Any signs of disloyalty to the “family” begins to shake the party’s core, sensing dis-allegiance to orthodoxy as sin and quickly excommunicating any dissenters from the holy of holies and cast into the bowels of hell.

Sound familiar? “Crucify him, crucify him!” Despite all the talk, God has been all but crucified by the “families” long ago, and often to replace themselves, believing they know better. The immediate reaction is to blame and exaggerate a “family” victimhood, lost in our own blindness and pain as it feels as if we’re losing control. No one listens so we simply yell louder and louder, feeding the addiction to contempt and hysteria. The demand for reform is silenced by threats of doom and fear, less than patriotic, the demise of the family name and a threat, unfortunately, to something that is already dead. It’s so easy to point fingers at one another, talking past one another, because in the end, it’s about the family and protecting what the family holds dear, often an illusion of safety and security fed by an ego desiring to protect and hold tightly. It’s right there in front of our faces, plain as day, and yet fear runs deep. We know what it means to be cast aside by the family. The voices of the mob have a way of penetrating even the most solid of people.

There are some, though, who intentionally separate from the bickering parents, if that’s what you want to call them, still children themselves consumed by their own wants and needs, throwing tantrums. Separating, though, seems nearly impossible. Our identity is dependent on the “family” name. It is, after all, all we know. The thought of leaving and being without seems as if it means the end of our lives or at least the end of all we know. How will we manage? We are left with not much choice as we find ourselves suffocating by an identity outgrown and a fear no longer satisfying. Our affiliation needs to be shed for our own good, and once we do, we begin to see differently, acting more independently, seeing the dysfunction on new levels. After all, being born into something has deep impacts on our lives and when we choose to separate, our natural inclination is to run back into the darkened cave where we have felt comfortable, welcome, safe, and secure. It’s a place where everything has a place, including ourselves, and best to not ruffle feathers for fear of excommunication. The addiction to contempt and hysteria, upon separation, sparks a glimmer of light, begins to bring tears much more than anger, sadness more than hatred and a general grief for a world in pain.

Leaving is, though, a rare occurrence, to step away or speak up in such a way, in such a profound way, because it has been ingrained in us to believe we must fear what we do not know and we’re safer on the inside of the “family”. It has been ingrained in us to mistrust anyone who believes differently than us. It has been ingrained in us to believe that “father” knows best for everyone and to never question that authority even when we’re feeling pushed into a corner. “Father” seems to endlessly disappoint. He seems to not follow through with promises. Deep within the family members, anger and contempt loom large in the heart and the patriarch uses it to retain power. Loyalty and obedience are the name of the game and mustn’t be challenged in any way. Then you step away and you begin to become aware of a life unlived, confined by an authority no longer sufficing, an authority not your own. Stepping away only seems to elevate the yelling, the call to coerce and manipulate, all to maintain the codependent family dysfunction as to not to expose the hypocritical, bankrupt ethic holding it together by a thread.

Maybe in the day we live the political parties do choose us. We gravitate quite naturally towards people we want to think like or who feel like we do. We certainly know they do everything to pull in the masses with endless promises and rabid fear. Here are a few things we miss. The political family as we have known them are already dead. We just don’t know what they will look like in the years ahead. The natural inclination is to go to the extremes to retain control and power, holding onto what has already passed thinking it can return. As is typical, the family members most hurt are the vulnerable and both parties do all they can to manipulate the vulnerable to retain their power, hallow promises of better days. People, though, do not always know they are the vulnerable. I have seen it in both urban and rural areas I have lived. In reality, the vulnerable of both areas are looking for the same, this elusive American dream, promised for decades but never fulfilled. Is there any wonder there’s contempt and fear, anger and grief?

The systemic problems we are born into are hard to escape. They encompass all aspects of our lives. The easier way is simply to succumb to the status quo sold under the illusion of change and greatness. The pain exhibited in this country is hard for any of us to explain. Our environment is indicative of the pain running deep to our core. Highways collapsing, mountains shredded, turbulent seas and rivers, unruly weather, all being manifested by the crumbling infrastructures that have served us well and now have become self-serving. As we move towards being more driven by data and numbers via technology, the pain is only going to deepen. In self-serving systems we lose a sense of our humanity, now playing out on the national stage for the world to see. Here’s the other point, everyone else knows. The world knows we’re vulnerable and the more we try to project strength only weakens our viability. We can try all we want to band-aid crumbling infrastructures and cling to dissipating structures, but all it does is expose how disconnected we have become as a nation, disconnected from our humanity. More often than not “families” need to fall apart in order to be reordered, even if it means extreme amounts of chaos. It’s one thing to experience such a collapse in our own lives when we seek change but it’s another when it’s large institutions and structures. The “family” will do everything in its power to cling, especially the patriarchal figures who haven’t grown up themselves and still cling to the greatest fear, death and letting go.

There is no need to look very far to know the political landscape is going to face change. As older generations begin to fade and younger generations step forward, values change as well as the dynamics. At the core there is still that desire to serve and many will abuse it and simply seek power. It’s in our fragile human nature, especially an ill-informed and immature one. It is, and should be, sad to watch if there is any semblance of awareness in your life. I’m tired of being told what I should believe. I’m tired of being told I’m something I’m not. I’m tired of being judged if I believe differently. But I’m not tired of pushing forward, attempting to look it through a third lens, critiquing all sides which aren’t very different in the first place. Maybe we are born into a particular party, but I would challenge anyone, if you have never once found yourself questioning the “family” and seeking truth in a different way, well, none of this will make any sense in the first place or it will be quickly about blaming the other side while rationalizing your own. It’s what gets us into these problems. If we soon don’t return to a sense of decorum and dialogue, actively listening, the problems will only deepen. The most important point, though, is trust. There is very little. It is key to the healthy function of any system. The patriarchs clinging to power will always believe they know what’s best and many will always believe anything they say because it’s what they’ve been taught to do, don’t question. Yet, they are just as fragile and vulnerable as the rest of us, maybe even more so because they have much more to lose. When you’re whole identity and life has been wrapped up in one identity, one way of life, one area, one particular reality, it’s hard to change because everything depends on it and it’s hard to trust otherwise.

No one, and I mean no one, can claim to contain truth in its entirety because truth cannot be contained in such a way. Truth has become associated with facts and knowledge, but as we’ve learned, they don’t always stand the test of time. Truth reveals itself when there is openness and dialogue, when there is freedom and love, when there is understanding and reverence. When contempt and hysteria rule the day, there is very little room for truth and logic. The shouts of crucifixion and demise will only continue until we reach the utter darkness of Friday. It’s inevitable. None of us knows what it will look like but we can only hope for the glimmers of the repentant one or the one who’s eyes were opened in that very moment, recognizing that all the yelling led to the death of an innocent one because of blindness and leaders who cared more about power than the people they were to serve. All they could do was fill their pockets, have little remorse, and hope their “problem”, the one who threatened their “family” was finally out of their hair. Little did they know it was just the beginning…step away, allow your eyes to be opened, embrace the life yet unlived, the unknown, and cross the threshold from blame and victimhood to wounded healer. It is, after all, what the world needs now, is love, sweet love.

 

To Hell With Rodgers!

See the source image

FYI:  Headlines can be misleading!  I’m really a fan of Aaron Rodgers!

“If our love of God does not directly influence, and even change, how we engage in the issues of our time on this earth, I wonder what good religion is.” – Richard Rohr

About a week ago I did something that I often try to avoid. I commented on a Facebook page (Crosswalk.com). I mainly did it because the title of the article posted was misleading. The caption simply read, “NFL Quarterback Aaron Rodgers Questions How Anyone Can Believe in God.” Out of curiosity, I opened the link, listened to the actual interview, and followed by reading some of the comments (always a mistake) only to realize most, if not all, actually read the article or listened to the interview with his girlfriend and podcast host, Danica Patrick. This may come as a shock, but that’s actually not what Rodgers said in the interview.

So, I commented. It was within minutes before a gentleman replied, chastising me and “threatening” me to prove him wrong. He was so certain that it’s what Rodgers said, inferring Rodgers would pay the price eternally. Now, I’m smart enough to know there was nothing that pointed to a sense of “openness” to dialogue with this guy, signaling religion is very black and white, with very little gray in his thinking. If I could only be that certain! Now before I go further, what Rodger’s said was he didn’t know how anyone could believe in a God that would condemn most of whom and what was created by the same God. If you actually take the time to listen to the podcast, Rodgers exemplifies a rather mature understanding of God and faith, practically opposite of what I encountered with the gentleman who replied to me, and quite frankly, proving Rodgers’ point in the first place.

Spiritual writers agree, as Rohr does in the quote leading off this post, that the maturity and health of a society are often directly linked to the health, or even lack thereof, of religion. I am well aware that there are many ministers on the frontline who work tirelessly seeking transformed hearts. I was one of them myself. However, the general degree of healthiness is abysmal, seeming to be hanging by artificial means. Religion, all too often, comes down to dogmatic statements, moral truths, purity codes, and creeds, all fine in and of themselves. However, when religion remains at that level, around means of control, belief, and a fear of a God that Rodgers speaks of, few are challenged to go to the greater depths the gospels demand, you are lacking in one thing…go, then come, follow me. The “burden of proof” needed to be placed upon religion is not about the accumulation, but the degree it teaches in simplicity, letting go, and a radical interior poverty, the changed heart that is desperately needed in society.

When religion begins to fail, just as it is with a failure in leadership, a vacuum is created for other gods to be manifested, and most certainly in the way we want to see the world. We become masters at projecting that image onto God, as if the Divine somehow chooses sides and it’s always our side that stands on the higher ground, moral principle, etc. In other words, pride. Now if we view it in that way, we can see the gods we have created in our political system, seeking a savior that will give us all we want. I believe early on in Hebrew Scripture it’s called the golden calf, with shiny, glittering gold and shrouded in incessant noise. We have two parties (yes, both) who have established creeds, moral truths, dogmatic statements, but maybe most dangerous, purity codes built in as to who’s in and who’s out. It’s a natural codependency that comes from an addictive culture. One will lead to heaven, the other to hell. One will lead to salvation, the other eternal damnation. Of course, both believe they’re right and the way, the truth, and the light.

This is where religion has served so many wrong. Religion, as an American institution, continues to cling, in shameful ways, to an image of God that does not suffice. Too much has been studied to know of the relation between images of God and our own background. Purity codes, in whatever purpose they serve, serve only to maintain the people who want to somehow attain “eternal life” while watching the rest be damned, as if somehow this is God’s plan. The arrogance and ignorance associated with such thinking, in the form of pride, prevents our eyes from seeing others, let alone ourselves, as human beings, but rather winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, heaven-bound and hell-bound. The gods we create become attached to issues and agendas that serve the purpose of the gods and the religion they serve. These gods are not about serving the common good, rather, they are about serving themselves.

Religion has failed us and continues to do so while clinging to a autocratic god that is always out to get us or at times, even a god that has no grounding in truth, both of which are bankrupt of any moral compass to point to the real truth. There’s almost an expectation that politics will fail us. However, when religion fails us there are real consequences. The gods we ascribe to, of winners and losers, rich and poor, or any other way, are never the gods transforming hearts. As a matter of fact, they thrive on division, competition, comparison, so that there is never a level playing field of humans journeying towards the same truth. It’s about pride, a pride that never admits wrong-doing, a pride that shatters the soul.

If you want to work for change, do it first by demanding more out of religion. Whether it stings or not, Aaron Rodgers is correct. If religion is about fear, then consider yourself afraid. If your religion is about winners and losers, consider yourself lost. If your religion is about certainty, consider yourself missing the marrow of life. If your religion is about purity codes and who’s in and out, consider yourself out. If anything is learned of the gospels, it’s that God is much more in the paradox than what we believe to be pure and certain. In the end, it simply leads to blame and victimhood and never affording ourselves the opportunity to look at our lives through a new lens of a transformed heart. True religion moves us towards integration, not separation.

The days of blame and victimhood must come to an end. Both stand in direct opposition of the faith and trust that a mature religion teaches. If our religion is not leading us to freedom, courage, truth, life, then I dare say, as Rohr says, then what good is it? It’s time for each of us to pause and ask ourselves the deeper questions that plague us. It’s time to demand more from religion than the gods we have settled for, lacking real leaders and settling for authoritarians. If we continue to settle, we mustn’t ask why things never change for the change we really desire begins with us, a change of our own heart. For then their eyes were opened and their hearts burned within them…demand more.

Unthinkably Perfect Vision

See the source image“For our faith to evolve, we need to look at the old and original in order to build something new and novel.” Richard Rohr

It’s impossible to miss all the memes and jokes that have been circulating as one calendar year closes and a new one begins. There have been plenty about dressing for the roaring 20’s, Barbara Walters uttering 20/20 as she did for years (for those of us old enough to remember), but also plenty of jokes about perfect vision. I have no such thing. The closest I come are through the progressive lenses I wear to assist in seeing more clearly. Heck, I can’t even seem to hear correctly if I’m not wearing my lenses! We make a lot of these new beginnings, facing a new year, with great anticipation, often with the expectation that somehow everything of the past year will fade into the sunset. It may be true in some sense, but really only if we are willing to work on perfecting our own vision and sense of awareness of where we have come from and where we are being led at the ringing in of a new year. If we’re honest with ourselves, we never truly know where it will lead us!

In looking back, to say 2019 was anything but monumental would be an understatement. There have been times the past few days when I’ve looked back and wondered how I was able to come to this point, the threshold of 2020, not being totally destroyed and utterly depressed. It was early in the year, when resolutions and hopes still rang true, when out of necessity of my health and well-being I needed to step away from priestly ministry. Anyone who has stepped away from any type of life commitment knows, that, once you have been pushed so far off the edge, in those moments there isn’t much chance to return. Again, for those old enough, how many times did Wiley Coyote attempt to do such a thing only finding himself falling flat on his face! It feels as if the ground has dropped beneath you and there’s nothing left to stand on at a time when you need it the most. The questions swirl, especially of the critics, including my own inner critic, as to how this is going to look, degrees of shame, hurt, kicked while you’re down, and all the rest that causes great unrest. You quickly learn who cares about you as a person or simply a persona, role, or identity of which you are associated. Your heart screams out reminding you that your worth is in you as a person, a human, but institutionally, unfortunately, not always the same.

I’ve written before about the level of angst I have lived with over the years, an angst that was norm. The consistent message was to fit into the proper place, but because of my own lack of awareness and deeply-rooted fears, it was easier to not fit than to have to confront what I was running from myself. If the experience has given any glimmer of hope it’s that the angst of trying to fit into what’s not and the necessity to run is no longer the name of the game. They are, though, a part of the story of moving towards that more perfect vision, unexpected as it is. They are moments I will never forget and will even take a great deal of time to heal. I have lost people in my life but have also become much more aware of the people who really matter. If I can offer 2020 anything of myself and the vision that has become more fine-tuned over the past year, it would be a restoration of humanity. We’ve lost touch with our humanity as a society, including many proclaimed Christians who forget it’s the foundational message of Christmas. I suppose it’s easier to dispose of people when we see them as something less, whether some image, their political affiliation, their way of living rather than a part of the human family they are.

The irony in the whole situation, for me, was that I had to step away in order to understand what faith was really about. Taking that step, as for anyone facing change, is to take the first step without knowing where you’ll land or if life really will go on. We have a tendency to get stuck right there, on the cliff, but never willing to step for fear of falling. Of course, there is a fall! There’s a fall from grace and yet into grace. There’s a fall into fear and yet excitement at the same time. There’s a fall into deep sadness but one that leads to great joy! I’m not sure I’d be the man I am standing on the threshold between years and decades without that fall. I can sit and write and find gratitude for the fall because the fall allowed me to reconnect, or maybe simply connect, with my own humanity and no longer shadowed by a role or identity. There have been plenty of times in the past year where I have sat at Mass and wondered how I was able to keep it up for as long as I did. It was about pleasing, all while grumbling within. Of course, there have been plenty of times where I have sat there, left before it ended, and saw for the first time why people don’t return. It felt like I was being fed stones in a moment when, in my own poverty, I desperately needed bread. Vision. How easy it is to become clouded standing atop a sanctuary, looking down, but looking at the wrong thing (that will be the next blog).

After returning from a month-long retreat at Saint Meinrad, I realized that it would be impossible to return at that time; more time was needed more. It was then I was pointed to Catholic Volunteer Network and came across a place close enough, yet far enough way, Bethlehem Farm. It was going to be another act of trust, as much of this experience had been, to keep moving towards rather than running. I began to notice the difference. When they agreed to take me on, another piece of the story, which was unknown just a few weeks earlier, was my dad being hospitalized just four days prior to my arrival date, was also beginning to unfold. After leaving active ministry in January I had started spending more time back where I grew up, not knowing what was about to evolve or devolve for that matter. I hadn’t realized, of course, that the weekend before Easter would be the final time I’d see my dad at home, sitting at the head of the table where he often did.

While his life was unraveling, slowly and quickly at the same time, the farm was beginning to give me what I needed and what was missing in my life, connection to myself and a grounding in the real and in love. For the first two months there, when there was a break from groups, I’d drive up to visit my father in the hospital, slowly watching life escape him. Each time there seemed to be another machine or gadget that was keeping him going. We should have known then, that, when so many artificial means are necessary to live there’s not much longer. It too would be a test of faith. In all reality, death is the ultimate test of faith and trust, not only for the one passing but even more so for those who grieve, despite never leaving. I can only imagine what was going through his mind or anyone in his situation, possibly questions I was asking of myself in those moments. How will I be remembered? Will I be forgotten? Will it be as if I never existed? In the moments of great unraveling lie these existential questions and thoughts of regrets and given but this one life to address them, hopefully before our final breath.

The final breath eventually would come in 2019. It was something not on the radar screen when I had left in January. It was something not on the radar screen when a 50th Anniversary was being planned, or for that matter, an impending wedding, all of which would fall during these months and days. The final breath is that moment of ultimate faith and has a way of perfecting our vision like nothing else. There it was, before our very eyes. After six months of my own tumultuous unraveling and grounding, and despite the sadness associated with death, all I could do was stand in awe. By the end of May I knew the moment would arrive. I could just tell that there was no recovering. Similar to my situation, once you are so far off the cliff, there’s nowhere to go but down. At some point in our lives, the only down is six feet but at others, seemingly a freefall. Little did I know that such an event would solidify that grounding that began at the farm a few months earlier. It was a grounding that would stand the test of the greatest of hurricanes and yet still remain tethered to the real. The vision became clearer and all I could do was continue to walk and walk forward.

It by no means diminishes the grief that needed to be felt; there’s always grief in life’s changes and unraveling. If the year has taught me anything it’s a constant reminder that I can’t think my way through everything, as much as I sometimes try. Some things about life just need to be felt. That’s not easy for a thinker. When the dust finally settled, I landed at one of the great spots for healing in my life, Acadia National Park, and would spend countless hours near the water. There was not only the grief of losing my dad, but the grief of losing relationships and a life once lived. The place which was my escape for so many years, in order to catch my breath, was once again a place of healing. We all have those places in our lives, where we can simply go and find solitude. They are not only the places to encounter the divine but also ourselves. I write these words sitting near the ocean once more, simply allowing myself to slow down and be with myself and hear the roar of the water that stands before me. It is the same roar that lies within me, a roar for life.

I sit here now as the sun begins to rise on a new day (preferred to midnight!). It would be easy to say it’s all behind me but I’m not sure a new year means simply dumping what was and starting new. Sure, there is a sentimentality that accompanies it but the year that now stands behind will be teaching me for the rest of my life. No one can experience life in such a way, and begin to see more clearly, without it being carried the rest of life. If anything, it has taught about what faith is really about. After studying about it and preaching it for years, it finally caught up in my own life and made me eat my own words. Life is all about trust and faith. Yet, nothing is desired more than integrity in an age when it is all but absent. Nothing is more desired than faith in a day when we put more trust in failing institutions than we do in ourselves and the eternal. Nothing is more desired than hope in a culture that demands instant gratification and the absence of death. Nothing is desired more than life when it’s what we fear the most that prevents it from happening.

As a new day dawns, with a morning chill still in the air, I sit, still, in awe of a year gone by. It is a year without regrets. It is a year when I connected and reconnected with the people that matter most. It is a year when I faced death in more ways than one. It is a year that taught me about faith in the absence of what was thought to have given it to me. It is a year that taught me all will be well and all will be well. It is a year of new birth, baby steps to a new way of living. It is a year where fear was taken head on and confronted. It is a year that allowed me to be me and experience the freedom associated with it. It is a year of which I will always be grateful for having the courage to take one step a year ago this month, taking that last breath in order to breathe again, cut from an umbilical cord that poisoned. It was a year when I closed my eyes, jumped, and yet saw more clearly than ever. It is a year that taught me to live without while recognizing I had it all. It is a year I can’t simply let go of, but as I stand now on this threshold, I continue to take very little with me for all I need I have. It is, after all, ending as it began and beginning as it ended, in a moment to trust and to have faith in my own birthright and that, in seeing more clearly, all really will be well. With that, I bid adieu to a year that was and welcome a year of possibility, filled with teachable moments of faith allowing the unthinkable to be seen more perfectly.

The Promise Realized

Micah 5: 1-4; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-45

I’ve been reading this book, God is Young, which is basically an interview that Pope Francis had done with an Italian journalist as a preliminary conversation before the Synod held in October on young people. The basic premise surrounds the question, “How do we move forward?” It seems that we’re rather stuck, not only in the Church world, but certainly as a country and even city, where it seems that we just can’t seem to move beyond this point of separateness. The gist of what Francis tells the journalist is that we have to connect the two generations that often get tossed aside in our world; obviously young people as to whom the synod was dealing with as well as the elderly. The young tend to get disregarded as being naïve and the elderly we don’t have time for or don’t want to deal with the reality of aging. He says, the answer forward is in those two. The young people are the dreamers, the visionaries, the prophetic voices where as the elderly have the lived experience and the wisdom to temper the energy but combined a way forward evolves and unfolds. He pretty much says anyone in between the two have a tendency to become too attached to the systems, whether in terms or religion, politics, or economically, that they don’t want to change and can’t see the necessity and so they try to silence the two that have the necessary vision.

It is, on some level, what unfolds in this dramatic scene in today’s gospel from Luke in the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. It is the reconciling of the past and future, in the one that is barren with the one who is full of life, the old and the new. Neither has any idea what the other has been through following the announcement of the birth of their children until they have this encounter with one another. In that very moment, two worlds collide with one another and a semblance of peace comes to their hearts, confirming that God has fulfilled the promise of long ago through their very lives. Here are two women at opposite ends of their lives and yet facing similar situations. Mary, in her teens, now faces with trepidation the shaming of a society, casting her aside for having this child under such circumstances and Elizabeth who has lived with the same reality in remaining childless her entire life and now beyond child-bearing age. In this moment, the Christ reconciles these two worlds and a vision unfolds, a vision that Luke has already began to spell out in the telling of these miraculous stories.

As the promise is fulfilled, Mary will go on and proclaim a vision for who this child is to be and a radical image of a God who has delivered the two of them. Mary’s Magnificat will turn the patriarchal God of the past on its head and a fresher and newer understanding of God who becomes incarnate as we will celebrate on Christmas. Luke already begins to point us in that very direction with these two women as the prophetic voices announcing this God of vision. The one would be seen as the prophetic voice, Zechariah, the head of the house, the man, is silenced in the announcement of their pregnancy and the voice of the women are raised in their consistent faith and trust in God, not separated from their lived experience of shame and being voiceless. Before the Christ is born, Luke already begins to point us to a new reality of God of giving voice to the ones who had been cast aside announcing the fulfillment of the promise made from the beginning of time.

You would think that Israel would have greater faith and trust in such a God, certainly symbolized through these two women, knowing their own heritage of a God who has seen the people through exile. Here two woman, one full of life and the other barren, learn to trust not only through their experience, but the experience of their ancestors of past that regardless of their own circumstances, God will see them through, even if not experienced first-hand. They obviously knew that Moses never did, and yet the dream, the promise, the prophetic voice continued to break through reconciling past with a present all in the name of Christ, God’s will.  Israel, to this day, stands as a microcosm of a separated world. The place of life and birth, as Micah proclaims, in Bethlehem, still remains separated from the barren city of Jerusalem by a wall. When we separate the two rather than reconciling we become what we are, a stuck people, clinging to dysfunction rather than trusting a new vision and hope for the human race, for the Church, our country and world.

As we gather for this Fourth Week or day of Advent, we gather mindful that these two women are more than just a story; they are each of us. God has planted within all of us a vision, a dream, a prophetic voice that can get out of control if not tempered by the voice of wisdom gently moving us along, teaching us to trust and let go. As much as it needs to happen in our Church and world in bringing together the ones without a voice, it’s a challenge to each of us individually as well. Their story remains are story as well. Israel, despite it’s own inability to get out of its own way, raises us these two radical women today while silencing the powerful ones of the world, leading us to a place of trust, that the promise given from the beginning of time continues to unfold and be fulfilled in our very lives. Sure we often prefer begin stuck in what we know, but Mary and Elizabeth remind us just how unsatisfying life is lived in that way. The more we keep ourselves open to the unknown, to mystery, to a God of great surprises, that same God will continue to give birth to us through the very same Spirit that has always stood as the great reconciler of dreams and wisdom. The promise given from the beginning is our promise, to have faith and trust and God will see us through. We may not know what it all looks like, but that’s why these two are about trust and the courage to say yes, not just once, but over the course of their lives, gradually opened to the birth of a new God, a new reality, rooted in Mystery.

Encountering Hope

John 18: 33-37

One of the themes of John’s Gospel, as I see it, is that anyone who comes in contact in a personal and intimate encounter with Jesus has hope of a changed heart.  It appears that there is always possibility, no matter who the person is or their position, something seems to happen in the encounter that surpasses the other gospels.  That includes the encounter we hear today with Pilate.  Unfortunately, because of the other three gospels Pilate has been type-cast and so it’s hard to look at him through a different lens.  He’s simply the enemy who gives into the conspiracies and fears of the religious leaders of the time.  The same is true in John’s Gospel; he’ll wash his hands clean.  But there’s something very different about the encounter with Jesus here today that is unlike the rest.

The tell-tale sign of all of this in John’s Gospel is what often follows the encounters, no matter with whom it takes place.  There’s chaos.  It seems like a rather odd sign that somehow God is at work but after the initial encounter, it appears that lives are turned inside out and upside down.  It appears that what they thought was right no longer is.  It appears that what was considered norm somehow seems to fall away and they all begin to see in a different way, as if a new created order begins to take shape out of the chaos.  This is the real point of John.  The gospel writer takes us back to the beginning of Genesis where God creates a new created order out of the chaos, whenever God speaks.  So, when Jesus speaks, and they listen to his voice, the chaos that ensues turns into a new created order.  It’s not a one-time deal.  There seems to be a need for consecutive encounters before anyone begins to trust that voice of truth but eventually leads to belief.

So today, the one who is seen to have unlimited power, or so he thinks, now has his chance on the stage when Jesus encounters Pilate and vice versa.  Pilate walks into this situation thinking he has the ultimate power and that Jesus is just going to be like the other religious authorities of the time, merely a push-over.  He thinks this is open-shut case until the actual encounter takes place and for the first time, Pilate begins to experience before him true unlimited power.  Like all the other characters in the gospel, his head starts to spin and chaos follows.  He doesn’t know what to make of this guy Jesus who turns the tables and puts him on trial instead, leaving Pilate looking for a way out.  The chaos that Pilate experiences within himself plays itself out with a constant change of scene.  He’s inside the praetorium now and then goes out to the crowd, and goes back and forth not sure who to trust or believe.  It’s as if he keeps returning to the crowd because they feed his power, rooted in fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, reminding him that Jesus threatens it all, fearing to appear weak.  Yet, he keeps returning for more in encounter Jesus.  There’s something appealing about Jesus in this encounter.  Does he trust the screaming voices of fear or trust the voice of God speaking within?

Of course, Pilate succumbs to the fear but we never know how the story really unfolds for him.  He thinks he can wipe his hands clean, but does he really?  He’ll eventually go onto ask his most infamous question, of “what is truth?”  It is often interpreted as Pilate’s finally giving in to the religious authorities but is it possible, for the first time, Pilate shows signs of question and doubt of his own limited power in the face of the unlimited power of God, standing before him.  Pilate gives into the destructive force of chaos but would it change in subsequent encounters with the Lord, if there were more time.  When both the political and religious authorities see themselves as having this unlimited power, fed by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, they place themselves as the agents of salvation, trusting in worldly power rather than the eternal kingdom that Jesus promises.  Yet, because they can’t see and become blinded by their own power, they see that kingdom manifested in an earthly sense, marked by land boundaries, within their own kingdom, now under threat by this new “king”.  Once again, though, the blindness of power leads to a misunderstanding of Jesus and the kingdom that lies within.  If we look to religious and political leaders as somehow offering us salvation, we too need to check ourselves and our own fears.  It’s the way they preserve their own power, clinging to what was rather than arriving with a sense of openness.

As much as every character that encounters the Lord in the Gospel begins with a sense of hope and the possibility of something, the thought of change scares people back into their own way of thinking.  More often than not Jesus invites, over an over again, to see things differently, to gain a new perspective, even to being led to chaos, to questions and doubts.  That’s the point, though.  If we never question the earthly powers we cling to and all that we think gives us power, we simply become part of the crowd yelling at the top of our lungs to crucify!  We can no longer hear the quiet voice of God, the breaking in of the kingdom within our own hearts, leading us to greater fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.  Quite frankly, it leads us more deeply into chaos, not just in the world but in our own hearts, which is then played out on the world stage.

If there is any semblance of hope for us it’s that in a time when we find our world often spinning out of control, controlled by fear, and the thought of change, unmanageable, it’s that only God can bring a new created order out of such chaos.  If we allow ourselves to step out of the way and trust in the true God, in our own encounters, then change is possible and we don’t need to find ourselves stuck as a country and world.  The chaos and level of uncertainty says more about us as people and this ongoing idea that somehow, whether religious or political, leaders can pull us out of such chaos.  We’re more like Pilate than we’d ever care to admit.  It’s so easy to be allured by the fear and the noise of the crowd and world.  It is only, though, by creative means, that a new created order, through the ultimate power of God found deep within, can lead us out of the chaos, that quite frankly, we created and only God can transform.

Paying The Price

I Kings 17: 10-16; Hebrews 9: 24-28; Mark 12: 38-44

As Jesus and the disciples now make their final march towards the ultimate battle and war, at the Cross, which we’ll hear in two weeks on the Feast of Christ the King, the gap between what Jesus calls them to as disciples and how they see things seems all but insurmountable.  Like us, the disciples too are a product of their own experience and their experience tells them that life has more to do with what the scribes, along with the other religious and political leaders, do than it does with Jesus.  All Jesus can do, as he does today, is keep moving them to look at things from a different perspective so that when they do finally face the Cross and the scales begin to fall from their eyes, things will begin to make sense and they will see what Jesus was about all along.  It’s hard to change when our own experience tells us something different than what we’re being invited into.  There’s feeling attached to it, emotion, and all the rest, that as we’ve seen in our own political and even religious institutions, we can overlook facts and truth all for the sake of holding onto what we think.

Yet, when they make that final march to the Cross, things begin to change and the disciples, like ourselves, are given a choice.  They’ve been given a choice all along and consistently reject the way of the Lord, but when their eyes are opened, the choice will become more obvious, do we follow the ways of the Lord, that have been pointed out to us along this journey, or do we continue to consume the ways of the world, often blindly following the political and religious leaders of the day who often feed into that lived experience rather than inviting us into something new, a new way of seeing and a new way of living that isn’t so much about consuming as it is sacrifice.

Jesus, once again today, tries to offer a different perspective by sitting off at a distance with the disciples and simply observe people, people watching as we call it.  He knows he can’t force the disciples to see as he sees, but as we’ve heard throughout Mark’s gospel, tell no one.  He just doesn’t want it to be some secret.  Jesus is aware that they don’t yet understand nor do they see what really matters.  They quickly, as we’ve heard these weeks, become enthralled with power, with honor, with wealth, and once again, the scribes prove it to them.  The temptation is so strong as they watch.  They see how people fall over them and how they manipulate and take advantage of the lesser of their society.  So, as only Jesus can do, he observes and contrasts the scribes with a widow, as we also heard in today’s first reading.  It’s not just because there was something so special about this particular widow.  It’s the fact that any widow of that time has nothing.  It’s not even simply about money.  She has no status and no voice, no nothing.  Yet, she gives the most.  As the scribes consume the honor, the power, the wealth, a particular attraction, this woman finds it all in sacrifice, in the nothing that she has.  That’s the point to the disciples as they look on.  You can have all the given power, honor, and wealth, but it’s not necessarily the way of the Lord.  As much as we love to consume, the way of the Lord is often just the opposite, letting go and sacrificing.

As you know, today we mark the 100th Anniversary of the ending of World War I and also celebrate Veterans Day, others who have gone to the ultimate battle.  If you read about the world wars, you quickly learn that there was also a very different mindset as a country and people.  It wasn’t just the one’s who went off to war who had to sacrifice, and sometimes their entire lives, but there was a call for everyone to sacrifice.  Since the events of 9/11, though, our attitude has been quite different.  After that and beyond it has been consume, consume, consume.  It’s not just things we’ve been challenged to consume, we consume media and social media now that feeds into the lived experience and how we see the world that it becomes harder and harder to change, to let go, to sacrifice.  As a matter of fact, the more we consume the more we think we need and the more we feel anxious when we don’t have it all.  It’s a consumer mindset that is eventually going to do us in and there will be a price.  Like the disciples and their experience of the Cross, it often takes something drastic to move us to change and for the scales to fall from our eyes.  At some point we just can’t consume anymore because it prevents us from dealing with the hurt and pain that resides below the surface.  The widow faced the cross.  Long before Jesus, the widow in the first reading faced the cross.  They knew what was most important, in particular when they were pushed to the point of losing it all.  The harder we cling, the harder it is to let go, especially of our way of thinking.

Over the past few weeks the writer of Hebrews has been pushing us to change our perspective as well, inviting us to step back and look at what really matters.  So often what we see with our eyes is what we think is most important.  Jesus himself will go on and speak about the destruction of the Temple, as it too consumes, becomes bloated, and becomes a source of corruption.  Hebrews keeps pointing us back to the Christ, that it is that relationship that offers salvation.  Don’t cling so hard to what you see because at some point the scales will fall and the questioning and the real choice will be revealed.  It appears, at least in plain sight, that Elijah is all about himself as he approaches the widow who’s at the point of death!  He simply wants food and drink for the journey as she watches her own son die.  Yet, she moves from her own lived experience as widow and still offers a hospitality that by sight seems senseless.  Yet, like Jesus, she finds strength and learns to trust even more deeply in those moments.  Elijah himself will continue to learn as his journey continues just what it means to be prophet.  Like the disciples his time wandering and in the desert will open him to new possibility and to find true power from his own emptiness and longing, sacrificing it all, including his way of thinking, rather than feeding the narrative that had been his lived experience.

At some point, we too are left with the same choice as the disciples as to how we will proceed in life, as individuals and even as community and country.  The more we consume what we think it’s all about, the more the gap grows as it did between Jesus and the disciples.  All Jesus or any of us can continue to do is invite us to look at life from a different perspective and set up the differences as to what’s most important and what we truly value.  Those who have nothing in the gospels point the way towards trust and faith in the God who often cannot be seen with the eyes, especially eyes clouded through our consumption of goods and media and whatever else we think we can’t live without.  Like the disciples, though, a day will come and it always comes, leaving us with the choice as we stand at the Cross and look on.  Do I choose the way of the Lord, which so often demands sacrifice and letting go to begin to see what really matters or will I continue to blindly follow the ways of the world, the political and religious leaders of our day?  It’s a hard choice but God has shown time and time again, there is but one way, the way of the Lord.  Today a rich widow simply points the way by giving of her whole livelihood.  Are we willing to do the same, even if it means sacrificing what we think is most important in our lives?

A Fractured Humanity

Of all the world religions, I’ll never begin to understand or grasp the level of disdain that exists for the Jewish faith.  Now maybe it was my own upbringing or simply the fact that over time my own image of God has expanded, transcending any of the ideas, theories, metaphors, or other means of trying to box God in to a convenient package that we can somehow control, and even worse yet, understand the motivation of the workings of God and Evil in our world, hearkening back to the original accounts of the desire to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, the knowledge of good and evil.  The temptation to know and to control, if anything, limits our purview of God and over time distorts our ability to see clearly, a God who leads us to fall into greater depths of mystery.

Shortly following World War II, Karl Rahner, SJ, wrote warily of the shunning of our humanity, after witnessing the annihilation of our Jewish brothers and sisters in the concentration camps, recognizing that it is only in our limitation as humans where we can experience and find the existence of this mystery.  He writes, “They say there is no God because they are confusing the true God with what they took to be their God.  And as regards what they are actually referring to really does not are quite right.  The God they were referring to really does not exist:  the God of earthly security, the God of salvation from life’s disappointments, the God of life insurance, the God who takes care so that children never cry and that justice marches in upon the earth, the God who transforms earth’s laments, the God who doesn’t let human love end up in disappointment.”  It is precisely, he’d go onto say, in our often felt despair when clinging to such a God where the true God, the God of this mystery, of unknowing, resides.

It is quite difficult listening to news stories of tragedies as what unfolded in Pittsburgh, PA earlier this morning, as a people who awoke from the darkness of the lingering night sky, began their sabbath as they do weekly, gathered in prayer.  Who would have ever thought that their day would unfold the way it had?  Who would have thought that they’d be the ones now facing that despair in the face of a God that had been faithful throughout the trials and tribulations of a people on a journey to greater depths and understanding.  A people that has such a storied history in the face of evil, and more often than not, in the name of another religion, whether historically with Christians, Muslims, or the rise of atheism and secularism that has contributed a great deal of animosity towards all religion, clinging to their own Gods and yet blinded by them at the same time.

In reading of the gunman, it was rather ironic or maybe even paradoxical, that his own animosity had grown even more acutely in thinking in his own mind that “the Jews” were somehow sympathetic towards the “caravans” of people fleeing Latin America violence, blaming them in this way.  If there is any truth, it’s in the metaphorical reality of a people that has the history of being a “caravan” people, fleeing the violence of Egypt in seeking the Promised Land.  It’s not to say that people Israel has been perfect, rather quite the opposite.  It is only in their own recognition of their limitation in fleeing persecution and slavery, that they begin to see the frail side of freedom and power, and, at times, become what it is they hated about Egypt.  Their story is our story, all of us.  We are a caravan people who continue to seek the Promised Land, but in the process of seeking and being found, we continue to cling to our Gods, as Rahner writes, and only then can we begin to catch glimpses, and only glimpses, of the deeper mystery we call God.

We live in an age when we find ourselves not only disconnected from our storied history but from our own humanity as well.  The warning of Rahner following World War II remains a warning to us all, maybe even more so in the age of technology when a persistent barrier prevents us from looking the person we loathe in the face and seeing them for more than a religion, a belief, a color, their gender, or any other means that we’ve accustomed to separating ourselves from one another. 

Certainly our own history, as a Christian, has often fed into these realities with faulty interpretations of Scripture that have long been outdated for our age and a clinging to our own Gods of dogma, security, and this senses of certainty that only gives an earthly assurance to us but never moves us to a place of trust and faith as it did people Israel in their own time of wandering.  It is in wandering that we find ourselves, blindly following the Gods of our times, calling us to consume information, consume by buying, consume by taking in and hoarding, somehow giving us the satisfaction and security we desire but creating a blockage in our hearts to understand and accompany the other in the caravan we call life.  The story of our Jewish brothers and sisters is our story as well, never fully known and always unfolding.  When we lose sight of that, we begin to not only box God into what we want and choose to define, but we box ourselves in as well.

We are a people held captive often by our own doing.  We are a people held captive by our thinking, our ideology, our politics.  We are a people that fails to recognize and accept our own limitations in freedom and of our humanity, seeking a “more” that is never fulfilled, leaving us angry and resentful towards the other that we have deemed worthy of such life, resorting to violence, hatred, judgment, bigotry, and all personified by a political system that is fed in that same way.  We are a people held captive by our own doing, still thinking that we too can eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, the knowledge of good and evil, taking matters into our own hands, not being abandoned by God but rather abandoning God all together.

Today, as so many in the past, one person took matters into his own hands, thinking in his own mind that what he was doing was good and failing in the way humanity has since the beginning of time.  We consistently toss ourselves from the garden, the paradise we desire, in order to create our own rather than living in trust and faith.  Our distorted religious culture continues to feed into a narrative that evil can be eradicated from the earth by our own doing and more often than not, violently.  Despite the fact that our Jewish brothers and sisters have at their helm the celebration of their own Passover and we Christians, a Cross, we still fail to learn that the only answer, and the most difficult, is the power that comes in and through love and forgiveness.  Once again we are given an invitation from the true God of our faith to respond to a senseless violent act against a people of faith, how will we respond?  Do we respond by arming ourselves with guns, failing to learn from our past of becoming what we have hated or do we respond in the way all people of faith are called to respond, with love and forgiveness?  If we desire to restore a humanity to our civil discourse, our religion, and even our culture, it is only through the deepest desire of our frail humanity, as Rahner states, with love and forgiveness, even in times of despair.